I am usually very skeptical about witch-related fiction. Far too many writers perpetuate the "Burning Times" mythologies of the radical feminist and Wiccan movements, instead of looking up some serious, credible historical research, and it drives me crazy. Now and then, however, I decide to take a chance on a novel. Canadian author Kelley Armstrong's Dime Store Magic rewarded my gamble with an intelligent, funny, and action-packed read.
This novel is the third in Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series. The first two, Bitten and Stolen, concentrate on the werewolf Elena (the only female werewolf in the world). In Dime Store Magic, the focus shifts to Paige, a young witch and web designer living in small-town Massachusetts. Paige, the titular leader of the American Coven, is also the new guardian of Savannah, a powerful thirteen-year-old girl whose recently murdered mother was a black witch. When we meet Paige, her main concerns are learning to deal with Savannah and heading off the disapproval of her Coven Elders, who do not accept her as the true Coven leader. Trouble arrives when Leah, a telekinetic half-demon who killed Paige's mother, launches a challenge for custody of Savannah.
This challenge is but the tip of the iceberg—the half-demon is working for a powerful sorcerer who claims to be Savannah's father. Paige is determined not to let Savannah be taken by the sorcerer's Cabal, but she faces formidable obstacles: supernatural enemies, human fear and prejudice, and her own Coven. Coping with a moody teenaged witch does not make things any easier.
Paige's refusal to give up Savannah lands her in hot water immediately, as Leah begins turning the town against her by setting up suspicion that she is a witch. Paige learns quickly that even in this "enlightened" day and age, witches are extremely unpopular. When Leah murders a human, Paige is the prime suspect, and the witches of her own Coven refuse to help her, fearing for their own safety. This betrayal forces Paige to help herself, which does not improve matters with the Coven but does lead to a number of exciting and entertaining magical clashes that culminate in a hell-raising climax.
Armstrong has created believable, likable characters in Paige, Savannah, and their sorcerer-lawyer Lucas. They are strong, witty, and imperfect, and it does not take long before the reader is whole heartedly rooting for them. Armstrong does an excellent job portraying the relationship between Paige and Savannah. Although they are several years apart in age, they have plenty in common: both lost their mothers in Stolen, and both are still discovering their powers. Savannah can be a brat, but there is a real, if largely unspoken, bond between the two young witches. The relationship between Paige and Lucas is also handled nicely, as Lucas must struggle to gain Paige's trust despite her deep loathing of sorcerers.
A major part of this novel's charm is the world that Armstrong has created. There are witches, sorcerers, half-demons, werewolves, shamans, and necromancers, all living and operating secretly in the modern world. All witches are female and possess relatively weak magical powers. Sorcerers are all male, and are much more powerful than witches. Witches and sorcerers belong to separate races and generally despise each other, in an interesting twist on the gender wars. Indeed, the novel can be read as an extended feminist metaphor on gender and the women's movement. It is no accident that the witches, who ought to support Paige in her struggle, have made themselves powerless through their internalization of stereotypes that say witches are weak and fearful. Only Paige and Savannah, who rebel against the timid restrictions of the Coven, stand up to the forces that threaten them. The sorcerers, in contrast, are unfettered by any concerns about the propriety of magic use or by any self-image problems, and are, as a result, rich and powerful.
Dime Store Magic is smart, fast-paced, and rollicking good fun. It is an adult novel, but teens will enjoy it too, provided parents are willing to tolerate some sexual content and R-rated language. With its strong female characters, it will appeal especially to young women, though male readers should not dismiss it as "chick lit." Wiccans may not appreciate how they are portrayed in a couple of scenes, but they should enjoy Armstrong's presentation of witchcraft. If I have one quibble, it is that Armstrong repeats the common error of blaming the Spanish Inquisition for the witch hunts of the early modern period; otherwise, I was quite impressed by her knowledge of demonology and her willingness to revise witch and demon lore in support of her story. I am eagerly awaiting the sequel, Industrial Magic, which is due out in November 2004.
Lara Apps works at the University of Alberta in Canada, where she earned a Master's degree in History. She is the coauthor, with Andrew Gow, of Male witches in early modern Europe, and has published several book reviews. She writes short fiction and is working on a novel. Visit her website at http://www.malewitches.ca, or send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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